Legendary acting coach Tanya Berezin once told an interviewer that what makes an actor great is the ability "to throw light ... in some sort of inexplicable way" on "what makes people tick and live and thrive and what makes people not." James Gandolfini, who died last week in Italy at 51, possessed that rare gift. Every moment he spent on the screen illuminated the human condition.

He was best known, of course, as star of "The Sopranos," which ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007, and was recently dubbed by the Writers Guild of America as the best-written show in the history of television. And plenty of "Sopranos" fans will tell you that the heart of the show was the sparkle of the writing. Others will cite the brilliance of the central irony, or even the precious settings, particularly the lovely upscale ordinariness of Tony and Carmela Soprano's suburban New Jersey home, which to this day is said to attract busloads of the curious.

But as fast as the plot twists and snappy one-liners whirled, "The Sopranos" was ultimately an actors' show, and the hub around which it all revolved was Gandolfini. Although it would be silly to compare "The Sopranos" to "The Godfather" movies, the quietly confident faithful husbands of the Coppola epics are in some ways less interesting as character studies than Gandolfini's angst-ridden, anxiety-driven, adulterous mob boss — the cruel yet eerily sympathetic antihero who paved the way for Walter White of "Breaking Bad" and even "Mad Men's" Don Draper.